THE STANDARD VIEW OF OUR SECOND PRESIDENT, John Adams — a yeoman farmer’s son from Massachusetts, a Harvard scholar and brilliant lawyer — is that he was the angry, stubborn, vain hiccup between the Virginian icons of America’s revolution, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington won the war; Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. But the Yankee in the middle was not only the staunchest supporter of breaking away from England at the fledgling Continental Congress, he has to be considered the American mold-breaker for public service, from his role in stirring that fateful Congress to seek independence, to his diplomatic efforts abroad — which separated Adams from the family he adored for years — to his service in the two highest offices in the land, including a presidency during which he narrowly averted war with France. He also had a marriage of equals with the love of his life, Abigail — whose wise, impassioned counsel argues for her being the country’s founding mother. And both forever believed slavery was an abomination. David McCullough’s masterful, Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, John Adams, did a great deal to restore our second president to a more prominent place alongside the perennially worshiped founding fathers, a corrective which Adams himself, who never let his natural humility get in the way of a desire for recognition, would surely have applauded. And now HBO has turned McCullough’s book into a rich, intelligent and often moving miniseries.
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Americans in Paris: Giamatti as Adams, Wilkinson as Ben Franklin
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The road to Philly: Adams leaves Boston and Laura Linney behind.
Of course, American history adaptations aren’t democracies, but while we viewers didn’t get a say in who played Adams, the superdelegates at HBO and Playtone (Tom Hanks’ company, which produced John Adams) did well by all of us in electing Paul Giamatti. One of our sharpest and funniest actors in his particular corner of disheveled masculinity, he’s also one of our canniest portraitists of accursed intelligence — the kind that may not be charming but can alter the molecules in a room by how he directs his jowly head and zealous eyes — and it’s there that he gives Adams a kind of searing vitality, and a wonderfully conflicted sense of purpose. One would need no less a talent than Giamatti to play the kind of law-revering individual who, as the first part of John Adams dramatizes, notoriously defended in court the British soldiers accused of cruelly firing into a crowd of colonists, killing five — an event known as the Boston Massacre.
“Counsel is the last thing an accused person should lack in a free country,” Adams quietly explains to his concerned soul mate, played with fierce affection by that other great conveyor of deep-set smarts, Laura Linney. Though it’s a principle Adams obviously believes in, Giamatti still hints at the ambition in the outwardly noble rights advocate to prove everyone wrong. Adams marshaled everything he had when the evidence pointed to no wrongdoing on the part of the soldiers, and won the case. Of this triumphant example of his esteemed impartiality, Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.” (Which could be the title of a biography of our current president.)
Behind the camera, director Tom Hooper does a bang-up job in this early section setting the tone for incipient revolt, but without the easy symbolism of good colonists and evil redcoats. (I’m thinking the execrable summer action flick The Patriot of several years ago.) The Boston of the 1770s is a grim, grime-and-snow-covered cauldron of taunting citizens, hated soldiers, arrogant Brits, Tory effigies and “Join or Die” posters, and Hooper uses close, handheld camera work — on the streets, and in the courtroom — to effectively suggest a queasy, uncertain time. (It speaks to the emotional tenor of the series that while much care went into the production design and costumes, it’s people’s eyes you can’t ignore.) Consider the gruesome gravity of a tense, claustrophobic depiction of the origins of the Boston Tea Party — in which we see ship owner John Hancock incite an angry throng to strip, cover in boiling tar and feather a British customs official. It speaks to the outrage of the oppressed, but also to the ugliness of mob rule, something Adams, shown witnessing it with his patriot cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston), found abhorrent and worrisome about power in the public’s hands. And when Hooper adds to this scene a quietly potent few shots of onlooking slaves in chains being unloaded from a ship, he and screenwriter Kirk Ellis shockingly introduce the cruel relativity of oppression. It’s as if for once we’re getting a visualization of this much-mythologized tipping point in American history in all its shades, from the viewpoints of the orders-following officer trapped by his job, the vengeful crowd emboldened to action, the righteous man of law forced to question his beliefs, and a shackled people whose freedom we know tragically won’t come when the tea-tax rioters earn theirs. For this brief but emotionally complex rendering alone, John Adams deserves a special place in popular depictions of U.S. history.
IT'S ALSO HARD NOT TO BE MOVED by the events of part two, namely the second Continental Congress’ eventual arrival at American independence from Britain, a hard-won success that Massachusetts delegate Adams had to finesse by segueing from punishing, dynamic oratorto skilled negotiator, thanks to some tips in the art of delegate-stroking from Benjamin Franklin (an entertainingly self-possessed Tom Wilkinson, looking like an upside-down mop). And in the drafting of the Declaration, we get to meet Thomas Jefferson — who would prove to be a lifelong friend and sometimes frustrating antagonist to Adams — and who is mesmerizingly played by Stephen Dillane with a combination of sweet arrogance and stateliness. But it’s in the strange, sad hush before the final vote for independence — punctuated by a literal storm heard outside the walls — that John Adams finds unexpected poignancy, as we sense not gung-ho pride at a nation’s birth but a feeling of dread in the momentousness of the act, due to the inevitable bloodshed and hardship to come. Again, the filmmakers add a visual corollary of stunning power: cross-editing Adams with Abigail as she makes the hard decision to have the family go through the painful inoculation process against the era’s devastating smallpox. As we see each solemn “Yes” in Philadelphia and each crude cut of the skin at the Adams’ Braintree farm, it’s as if everywhere the virus of revolution is being deliberately sown, on a risky bet that it would flame only briefly and lead to something safer down the road.
And this is just the first night. Part 3 shows Adams’ difficulties as a diplomat seeking French support for the war — the frugal scold in a hotbed of libertine opulence — and, as the first ambassador to Holland, looking for a loan to establish U.S. credit. Part 4 details the lead-up to Adams’ vice-presidency and his relationship with his now-adult children. After that I can’t say, since the rest of the miniseries wasn’t made available. But I’d like to think John Adams continues its gripping mission to keep America’s birth from feeling like a series of events that magically happened when certain people showed up like preordained god-men. In its first four segments, John Adams makes very real, very immediate and very gut-wrenching how this shaky country came to stand on its own — and, consequently, stand for something unique — and what galvanized the thinking behind the decisions of some awfully brave people. And in this year of presidential politics, when America’s promise and possibilities seem exciting again, especially in the wake of some pretty bad years, the lessons of this turbulent, euphoric era in our history depicted through the eyes of a wonderfully tough, smart and contradictory figure like John Adams — a man whose perhaps most valuable trait in establishing a republic was seeing the world in front of him for what it was — would seem to be, to borrow a word, self-evident.
JOHN ADAMS | HBO | Two-part premiere Sunday, March 16, 8 p.m., remaining segments Sundays, 9 p.m., with multiple repeats